Happy-go-lucky Edward Thomas
By Michael Caines
In this week’s TLS, Paul Jarman reviews Matthew Hollis’s Now All Roads Lead to France, which tells the story of Edward Thomas’s last years, alongside the first volumes in the new Oxford edition of Thomas’s writings – of his writings in prose, that is. Apparently the longest single work in those two volumes is a novel set in surburbia. Apart from a few mighty cognoscenti, who would have expected that of a countryman-poet?
Reading the novel now, with Thomas’s ruralist reputation in mind, it’s interesting to see how he reshapes, tantalisingly, the matter of his own life in South London. Thomas was born in Lambeth, and for many years his family lived at 61 Shelgate Road in Clapham. His parents moved a little further south, to Rusham Road, nearer Wandsworth Common, after Thomas moved out of town. So he knew the area well, and revisited it frequently.
Published in 1913, The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans is only a “short novel”, but, according to Guy Cuthbertson, one of the editors of the Oxford volumes under review, “it contains a great deal of Edward Thomas: . . . the book displays his interests, his talents, his reading, and many of his memories”. Thomas himself described it as:
“a loose affair held together if at all by an oldish suburban home, half memory, half fancy, and a Welsh family (mostly memory) inhabiting it & collecting a number of men & boys including some I knew when I was from ten to fifteen.”
Seeing this loose scheme as an opportunity to “use all memories up to the age of 20”, Thomas therefore “indulged himself freely”.
The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans begins by announcing that it is a story of Balham in South London, and of “a family dwelling in Balham who were more Welsh than Balhamitish”; and at the heart of the story is Abercorran House, a suburban paradise of a place, where the Morgans live, named after a small town in Carmarthenshire (Abercorran being an old name for the real Welsh town of Laugharne, where Dylan Thomas lived for the last few years of his life and wrote Under Milk Wood). Apparently, it’s Laugharne rather than London where you’ll find an Abercorran House today.
Although the novel’s suburban Abercorran House is gone by the time the story begins, the street where it stood (now “straight, flat, symmetrically lined on both sides by four-bedroomed houses in pairs”) has inherited the name, and the “three-acre field” that was its garden has likewise passed on its old nickname, The Wilderness, to Wilderness Street. No. 23 Wilderness Street “probably has the honour and misfortune to stand in the pond’s place”:
“I can understand people cutting down trees – it is trade and brings profit – but not draining a pond in such a garden . . . and taking all its carp home to fry in the same fat as bloaters, all for the sake of building a house that might just as well have been anywhere else or nowhere at all.”
Another survival gives the narrator greater satisfaction: Ann Lewis, the Morgans’ old servant, lives at No. 21 Wilderness Street; she approves of her current employer because he at least has the decency to be Welsh.
Reviewing the novel in November 20, 1913, alongside Saki’s latest (When William Came) and other works of lesser note, the TLS observed that The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans made for “rather patchy reading” but had “undeniable artistic merits”, not least in its depiction of the “dark and hugger-mugger rooms” of the house, its environs and inhabitants – of the “yard with men and dogs sunning themselves in it; the fish-pond; Jessie’s singing, the doves, Mr. Morgan’s cigar . . . the various hangers-on, such as Mr. Torrance, the bookseller’s hack, Mr. Stodham, the clerk, and Aurelius, the superfluous man; the literary talk, the quotation from the poets, and the tales of folklore and of Welsh worthies . . . .”Such reminiscences struck the reviewer, who recognized the narrator of the novel as Thomas’s alter ego, as exceptional: “There are not many who remember their boyish day-dreams so well as to set them down faithfully on paper years afterwards”.
Thinking of those regularly anthologized poems of his, about the countryside (I admit a grave weakness for “Haymaking”, with its bow-and-arrow flight into the past), I’m struck by how lyrically Thomas can depict suburbia. The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans fully acknowledges the mysterious pleasure of wandering around the city:
“Sometimes in our rare London travels we had a glimpse of a side street, a row of silent houses all combined as it were into one gray palace, a dark doorway, a gorgeous window, a surprising man disappearing. . . . We looked, and though we never said so, we believed that we alone had seen these things, that they had never been seen before. . . . Some of the very quiet, apparently uninhabited courts . . . made us feel that corners of London had been deserted and forgotten, that anyone could hide away there, living in secrecy as in a grave.”
Perhaps the spirit of these words is not so different from that of a poem written a little later, in the year Thomas enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles, “Good-night”, in which – for all that “Thrushes and blackbirds sing in the gardens of the town / In vain: the noise of man, beast, and machine prevails” – the poet can “seem a king” as he walks through the “unfamiliar streets”:
The friendless town is friendly; homeless, I am not lost;
Though I know none of these doors, and meet but strangers’ eyes.
Only the refracted Happy-Go-Lucky sentiment, if that is what it is in “Good-night”, ends in wartime poignancy:
Never again, perhaps, after tomorrow, shall
I see these homely streets, these church windows alight,
Not a man or woman or child among them all:
But it is All Friends’ Night, a traveller’s good night.
Studies of Edward Thomas can’t quite agree where exactly Abercorran House is meant to be – one suggests it’s “on the edge of Hammersmith”, which could be facetiously translated as “in the Thames” – or indeed if it was meant to be anywhere. Thomas was being deliberately discreet about its location, we’re told; his correspondence certainly shows that he felt constrained to be a little more vague than he would have liked.
Then again, from a “mapping writing” point of view (of which more at a later date, I hope), it’s interesting to note that Thomas also considered giving the book a subtitle, “A True Story of Balham”, and a preface emphasizing that the novel was based in reality. As it is, The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans gives directions to Abercorran Street from where the tram stops (“up Harrington Road . . . the second turning on the right”), and mentions various house names: No. 23 is called “LYNDHURST”, and the houses on the street running up to Abercorran House are called The Elms, Orchard Lea, Brockenhurst and Cadelent Gate.
Are those clues enough to direct any would-be literary sleuths or future biographers to some strand of leafy suburbia where it will turn out that red-brick, semi-detached houses (“four-bedroomed houses in pairs”), carrying similar names (if not the same names), still stand in straight lines, between Clapham Common and Wandsworth Common, Wandsworth Common and Tooting Common? Or would that be to miss the point of the “beautiful fantastic geography” of this countryman-poet’s London novel?
With thanks to Paul Jarman.